Can Slaven Bilic take West Brom back to the Premier League?
Background image: Jameboy, CC BY-SA 3.0
When Slaven Bilic took over as the new manager at West Bromwich Albion in the summer, eyebrows were raised in some quarters. Sure, if The Baggies were still in the Premier League fighting for a place in the top half of the table few will question his decision. But the side suffered relegation from the English top-flight two seasons ago. A concerted effort to bounce back immediately ended in disappointment. As is usually the case, manager Darren Moore was let go.
He was later replaced by Bilic. For the club, it was back to the drawing board with the Croatian's appointment. After a poor spell in faraway Saudi Arabia with Al-Ittihad that lasted just five months, the former West Ham gaffer took his new job with renewed vigour. It's perfectly understandable if he saw it as an opportunity to prove to employers (who appeared to have lost confidence in his ability) that he still has what it takes to lead a team to success.
So far, he is leaving no one in doubt. The Baggies sit top of the Championship table. Yet to taste defeat in the first nine games of the season even after having faced the likes of Nottingham Forest, Derby County and Fulham all away from home, the team is looking good for a return to the big time. But perhaps the biggest test of the side's readiness to achieve that aim will come today in a meeting with Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United.
The Whites came close to a return to the Promised Land under the Argentine gaffer last term, but fell short of an automatic place in the final weeks, eventually finishing third. The side then lost out in the playoff semi-final to the Albion who had finished fourth. The home team will therefore be determined to avoid another defeat that could prove costly in the end. A share of the spoils here could mean both sides are well-positioned to secure promotion at the end of the campaign...
However, another team making a strong case for promotion is Swansea. The Welsh outfit has played some exquisite football early on under new boss Steve Cooper. With Nottingham Forest also in the mix, the fight for the available Premier League slots promises to be intense. But Bielsa and Bilic will have an edge in leading their teams over the line as a result of their experience.
Having managed successfully in the Premier League, the pair are better prepared for the task. Yet, for Bilic, he will need to do more to keep his team firing until the end. That's because his sides have usually failed to keep the momentum going after initial success. Nonetheless, the fact that he has some very good players at his disposal will help his cause.
A core of the players that got relegated from the Premier League is still with the Midlands outfit. The likes of former Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs and Egyptian international Ahmed Hegazi are holding things firm at the back. There's also a former England international Jake Livermore (who captains the side) controlling the midfield alongside Matt Philips and Chris Brunt. Up front, there's Hal Robson-Kanu and Charlie Austin who recently joined from Southampton.
Exciting youngster Nathan Ferguson also features in the defence as does Rotherham's Player of the Season from last term, Semi Ajayi. The Nigerian was acquired in the summer. The group has proved effective so far and should help the club make it back into the Premier League, though that will depend on Bilic's ability to keep the team's performance up over the course of a long, arduous campaign.
Having achieved relative success at the highest level both as a player and manager, that's something well within his capabilities. So far, the early signs suggest West Brom have what it takes. Therefore, Baggies fans can start dreaming of life back in the Premier League come next season...